Conscientious Objector Poem by Edna St Vincent Millay Summary, Notes and Line by Line Explanation in English for Students


The poem “Conscientious Objector” is a poem written by Edna St Vincent Millay, an American poet. The title of the poem “Conscientious Objector” signifies a person who refuses to join in military service. Through this poem, the poet is showing her opposition to the war and military movements. So, she has indicated her stand against the wars taken by her nation on other countries during World War I. This poem was written in the year 1934. It was published in the collection named Millay’s “Collected Poems” in the same year.

About the poet:

Edna St Vincent Millay is an American lyrical poet and playwright.She is a renowned feminist. Under the pseudonym Nancy Boyd she contributed much of her prose and verse. Millay was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for her poem “Ballad of the Harp-Weaver“. Millay was the second woman to win the “Frost Medal” for her lifetime contribution to American Poetry.


The poem “Conscientious Objector” is written in free verse. It means that it lacks metre or set rhyme scheme. It consists of 25 lines in total. The poem is written in the form of 3 stanzas which contains 10, 6 and 9 lines respectively.

Point of view:

The poem is written from a first person point of view. Therefore the poet is the speaker of the poem. This can be evident from the lines like,

I shall die, but

that is all that I shall do for Death.


The poem “Conscientious Objector” is the poem against war and death. The speaker of the poem is the poet herself. The poetess shows her disagreement with the war activities. So, through this poem she is showing her opposition to the war and military movements to show power on neighbouring countries. Thus, the speaker has personified Death as a person in the poem. She is refusing to help him to gather information about the people. 

Poem Analysis:

Lines 1-4:

I shall die, but

that is all that I shall do for Death.

I hear him leading his horse out of the stall;

I hear the clatter on the barn-floor.

The speaker of the poem declares, that she will die but deliberately refuses to be a part in death. Here, the poet has personifies “Death”. The speaker is unwilling to help Death as she hates war which causes tragedy in the lives of people. The speaker hears the sound of Death leading on his horse. She could hear the continuous footsteps of hirse on the floor.

Lines 5-10:

He is in haste; he has business in Cuba,

business in the Balkans, many calls to make this morning.

But I will not hold the bridle

while he clinches the girth.

And he may mount by himself:

I will not give him a leg up.

The speaker says that Death is in a hurry. He has business in Cuba and the Balkans. Death has many calls to make today. The speaker of the poem is showing her strive to help him in these lines. She is not going to hold the bridle for him to mount on the horse. 

Lines 11-16:

Though he flick my shoulders with his whip,

I will not tell him which way the fox ran.

With his hoof on my breast, I will not tell him where

the black boy hides in the swamp.

I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death;

I am not on his pay-roll.

In this stanza Death is portrayed as a horse. The speaker says even if he attacks with the whif, the speaker will not show the whereabouts of the fox. The speaker is ready to receive the thorny feet of Death in her breast, yet she is unwilling to show where the black boy hides. The speaker is ready to die instead of being like an employee for Death. 

Lines 17-25:

I will not tell him the whereabout of my friends

nor of my enemies either.

Though he promise me much,

I will not map him the route to any man's door.

Am I a spy in the land of the living,

that I should deliver men to Death?

Brother, the password and the plans of our city

are safe with me; never through me

Shall you be overcome.

In this stanza the idea of the speaker is clearly visible to the readers. The speaker is showing her opinion against war. The speaker says, she will not show the whereabouts of neither her friends nor her enemies. Even if Death promises her, she will not show the route to anyone’s door. The speaker is questioning herself, 

Am I a spy in the land of the living,

that I should deliver men to Death?

She calls Death a brother in the last few lines. He informs Death that she has the passwords about the city but she will not share that with him. Thus, throughout the poem the speaker is showing her strong opinion against war.